Social business, Have SharePoint Online + Office 365 Evolved Enough for SMBs to Get Value Past the
Office 365 has made SharePoint available to the masses due to its aggressive price point. But is a low monthly cost per user enough for an organization to really facilitate enterprise collaboration and ultimately justify the ROI? Will SMBs be able to successfully implement and adopt SharePoint Online without substantial investments in expert assistance?

To make some predictions on this that pass muster, we’d better establish two things from the get-go:

  1. What do organizations do with SharePoint?
  2. What qualifies as an SMB?

What do Organizations Do with SharePoint?

This has the potential to run the gamut, given the breadth of SharePoint’s feature set, the fact that it’s an app/development platform, and that different organizations need different things. To keep this from getting unwieldy, here’s a list of use cases that most people would probably agree are commonly solved with SharePoint:

  • Basic primary intranet (Onboarding/orientation -- HR and benefits info, Employee directory, upcoming events, etc.)
  • “File server on the web” (Centralized doc templates, robust search, versioning)
  • Team/departmental collaboration sites (doc libraries, lists, calendars, light project management, etc.)
  • Personal web spaces/“walls” (basic My Sites)
  • Simple business process management/automation (vacation requests, expense reports, purchase orders/requisitions)
  • Knowledge Management (Wikis; KnowledgeBases. Advanced solutions leverage robust taxonomy models)
  • Secure client/customer Portals/Extranets
  • Enterprise Social (Robust MySites; ratings and rankings; internal blogs; “blessed”/recognized SMEs)
  • Business Intelligence (Financial or operational reports and dashboards)
  • CRM-type solutions (Shared customer contacts, case management, capturing customer interactions)
  • Composite/Mash-up applications (interactions surfaced through SharePoint that allow users to read/write from multiple, disparate back ends, e.g., both a CRM and ERP)

What Qualifies as an SMB?

Try Googling “how many employees in a small business” and you’ll get a mind-numbing set of results to review, all of which lead to varying laws and opinions about what criteria determines your “size bucket.” 
Since we’re talking about a solution that is largely implemented to facilitate collaboration between humans, it feels far more relevant to focus on size of staff over all other criteria (revenue, number of locations, type of business, etc.) This table I lifted from Wikipedia feels about right:


IMHO the European Union has it pegged, with 250 employees being a more realistic threshold of what constitutes the top end of a “medium sized” business. Think of it this way: how many people will actually need to adopt the technology in order to make it a success? From this perspective, anything over 250 feels like a pretty “large” group to me.

With all the demands today, SMBs are typically ahead of the game if they have enough IT resources and competent professionals, be they in-house or outsourced. SMBs often have from 1-5 internal people, wearing hats that range all the way from help desk to network infrastructure, servers and security. Even a heavily cloud-invested team is going to be lucky to have one professional that’s a true expert in a LOB application.

What Constitutes a “Valuable” or “Successful” Implementation?

Let’s keep it simple, but agree that a successful delivery would broadly mean that:

  • The entire organization will adopt SharePoint as consumers/collaborators (and the majority will use it as intended!)
  • “Non-Techie” subject matter experts will be capable of “rote task” administration. They won’t necessarily know the difference between a Farm and a Farm Solution - but they’ll be able to create and manage content (libraries, lists, sites), and generally control/extend/evolve some amount of functionality within the collaborative experiences after they’re initially delivered.

What Resources (People) Will We Need? Required “Tiers of Expertise”

Now that we know how big our organization is, and we know what we want to deliver, we can get down to business. Implementing each use case from our “What do organizations do with SharePoint?” list in SharePoint (2013) Online will effectively fall into one of the following required “tiers of expertise”:

  • Basic expertise required: Can be delivered through administration, with minimal learning curve and a little tech support. Has potential to be “DIY” with one or two motivated power users/champions that can both implement and train users.
  • Intermediate expertise required: Everything “Basic,” plus one or more competent SharePoint Admin experts. They’ll ideally have an entry level SharePoint Administration certification, know some PowerShell, but isn't necessarily a developer.
  • Advanced expertise required: Everything “Intermediate,” plus .NET and/or DBA expertise, or a third party add-on and support to pull it off.

Use Case/Solution Breakdown, by "Tier of Expertise required"

The following table provides a real-world mapping of our use cases to the required expertise, based on our team’s experience:


SharePoint Online SMB Scorecard: The Good, The Meh and the Bad/Ugly

The Good

Implementing the “Basics” use cases will yield a decent amount of value to an organization, if done thoughtfully. It’ll take a little longer without expert help, but it’s doable with a bright, motivated, “rising star” at most SMBs. There are lots of good, inexpensive self-service training resources to help.

Organizations really hum when they have a truly integrated set of tools. Implementing all of the Office 365 “foundation parts” makes for a very robust and more easily adopted experience. SharePoint collaboration, enterprise social and knowledge management experiences are all substantially enhanced when implemented alongside Exchange and Lync Online (which are, incidentally, a fair amount easier to implement than SharePoint Online.)

Let’s not forget about that price of entry. For SMBs, the more comprehensive Office365 packages make things particularly compelling. At the time this article was written, price points for Office 365 Midsize Business, Enterprise E3 and E4 plans all include Exchange Mailboxes, Lync Online, and desktop licenses for Office Professional Plus, at US$ 15, US$ 20 and US$ 22.50 per user per month, respectively. That’s an awful lot of bang for the buck.

The Meh

Office 365 Administration, especially SharePoint Online Administration, is clunky. You can get things done, but not without a few headaches. When compared to the on-premises equivalents (which could also use a real looking-at), they feel like something of a bastard stepchild.

Reliability isn't where it needs to be. There’s not an especially high frequency of slowdowns or outages, but it’s too frequent, despite a 99.9% SLA. Microsoft is clearly still figuring out how to do multi-tenant at a very large scale, and more growing pains are likely as it gets adopted more widely.

The Bad/Ugly, or Microsoft’s Achilles Heel, if they don’t correct it

Tech support for Office 365 is consistently someplace between poor and awful. Turnaround for non-critical issues is typically at least 24-36 hours, and that’s when you’re a certified partner. When you do finally connect with someone on the phone, it’s always offshore, frequently difficult to understand (both in audio quality and dialect), and generally less than helpful. Issues very frequently require escalation before you get to someone who is reasonably knowledgeable.

Even locating the appropriate contact can be very challenging. I triple-dog-dare you to find an email address or phone number, starting here, here, here or here.

So, have SharePoint Online and Office 365 evolved enough for SMBs to get value past the "price of entry"?

Generally speaking, IMHO, the answer is yes, but there’s certainly room for improvement, by making it easier for non-techies to deploy and manage the experiences. Until then, there’s a widespread network of SharePoint savvy professionals that can help get an SMB implementation off the ground (or to the next level) with strategic, affordable investments.

At present, SharePoint Online isn’t perfect, but by bundling all the other arrows in its cloud quiver and pricing them aggressively, Microsoft has bought enough time to improve administration UX, tech support and their hosting infrastructure. If they prioritize those investments over features, they’ll be in a very strong position to compete and dominate in the SMB space.

Title image courtesy of Melpomene (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more by Seth in The Evolving Role of Content Management in Modern Intranets